By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Hardly anyone noticed last month when Independence Day arrived for the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Broward’s powerful but obscure transportation agency.
No politicians made speeches; no one marched in a parade. But it turns out that there were plenty of fireworks behind the scenes at the agency that largely decides what county roads get built or improved.
As the MPO was breaking away last spring, county employees filed a pair of whistleblower complaints accusing top MPO officials of mismanagement, unprofessionalism and cronyism.
The names of the whistleblowers are not public by law. But reports of county internal investigations obtained by Broward Bulldog using Florida’s public records law expose a bureaucratic fault line affecting hundreds of millions of dollars in public transportation spending, and future planning efforts.
Broward’s MPO is a federally mandated transportation planning body that was welded to the county by a staffing contract since its establishment by the Florida Legislature in 1977. Its 19 members, mostly elected city and county leaders, control approximately $300 million a year in federal transportation system funds and decide which Broward road and improvement projects get built and which don’t.
Currently, that money and additional federal stimulus dollars are being spent on bus shelters, the development of I-95 car-pool lanes, and the new Dixie Highway bridge linking Deerfield Beach and Boca Raton.
The MPO became independent on August 6, and moved to 100 West Cypress Creek Road in Fort Lauderdale. It’s now affiliated with the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, Tri-Rail’s parent, which provides various administrative services and a line of credit.
Its first meeting as a freestanding agency is Thursday, Sept. 16, at Weston City Hall.
A NASTY DIVORCE
MPO Chairman Daniel Stermer, a Weston city commissioner, described the split as “acrimonious.”
That acrimony played out in the relationship between Broward Administrator Bertha Henry and the MPO’s Executive Director Gregory Stuart.
The county’s investigation focused on allegations that Stuart was a “dictatorial” and “anti-county” manager. One whistleblower recounted how Stuart allegedly “suggested he read Machiavelli’s The Prince in order to understand (his) management style and relationship to the county’s ‘fiefdom,’” the report says.
Henry criticized Stuart’s outspoken criticism of county management as “unbecoming,” and considered him “insubordinate” for refusing her order to furlough MPO staff.
“Had independence not been imminent, Mr. Stuart would have had negative consequences,” Henry drily told a county investigator.
Still, the report says most people interviewed by the investigators didn’t feel that way about Stuart. Rather, they appreciated his “ability to set a new course and be decisive in his actions.”
But Henry’s opinions are most echoed in the report. It concluded Stuart was insubordinate, as well as unprofessional for calling county staffers “incompetent” in meetings and elsewhere. Also, he was found to have manipulated data to support the push for MPO independence and violated county rules by drinking alcohol at a mid-afternoon holiday party.
“It’s interesting how things can be spun,” said Stuart after reading the reports for the first time.
In the face of those findings, the MPO board voted unanimously to retain Stuart to lead the independent MPO. The board also raised his pay from $120,000 to $150,000 a year.
OTHERS TO BLAME?
Stuart traced his troubles at county hall to another whistleblower accusation investigators did not sustain: that he was “protected by specific county commissioners” – namely Broward Mayor Ken Keechl and Commissioners Lois Wexler and Kristin Jacobs.
“Because I actually talked to a politician I became enemy number one,” Stuart said.
Bureaucratic tension isn’t new to relations between the county and the MPO.
According to Stermer, the self-described “instigator” of the MPO’s breakaway from the county, MPO members have long been concerned that information they were getting from MPO staff was “tilted toward what they thought the county commissioners wanted.”
“I started to raise questions six years ago about the issue of a federal agency being in a staff servicing agreement with Broward County, and the position that was putting the staff in – serving two masters,” Stermer said.
Stermer was also the subject of a whistleblower allegation that he had improperly influenced the MPO to award a $2,500-a-month contract to a Fort Lauderdale land-use attorney.
Stermer told investigators he introduced Orshefsky, husband of development lobbyist Debbie Orshefsky, to the MPO because of his expertise, but that it was the board who hired him. Investigators concluded the contract was awarded outside the procurement process, but did not fault Stermer or anyone else.
With the MPO now independent, the reports’ “recommendations for corrective action are somewhat moot.” One the county may keep an eye on: “whether adverse employment action occurs against MPO employee-whistleblowers or participants in the MPO investigations.”
The MPO had 25 employees before the split. According to Henry’s office, 12 stayed with the MPO, three retired, seven took other positions with the county and three were laid off.
Stuart said the MPO today has 16 employees, including himself. He says that’s a good number.
“I don’t know why there were so many employees before. That’s just the way the county managed it,” Stuart said.
Can the county and the MPO now get along?
“Of course. We can work with whomever we need to work with,” said Henry.
“I’m not going to have a problem with that,” said Stuart.
Broward residents should be happy to hear that.
According to Stermer, going rogue was necessary for the MPO to take the next step in transportation planning in South Florida. And governmental cooperation is the key to success.
“There needs to be more regionalism and we have started it,” said Stermer. “The federal government wants to put a lot of money into southeast Florida, and we believe this step will assist us in pulling down those funds.”
Henry, however, says that “only time will tell if this is a good move.
“I’d rather them have the independence they feel they need so they can move their agenda,” she said. “So there is no question if they are successful or not.”